5) Starcraft 2
I don’t actually like playing Starcraft 2. The game treats attention as a resource, putting a premium on multitasking skills and requiring constant focus. It’s poorly paced and exhausting. On the other hand, watching Starcraft 2 is great. The first five minutes of games can be a little slow, but once things get going, the things I don’t like about playing the game become its strengths. There’s battles over position, multi-pronged counter-attacks, hidden bases, sudden changes in unit composition. It’s all very exciting. It’s very dynamic, too. I’ve been watching some of the top games from early in 2010, and competitors are playing in very different styles than they would today. Blizzard has done a great job of providing replay tools so that one can actually understand in fine detail what’s going on in a match, and the sheer volume of quality content being put out there from various tournaments and casters is overwhelming. It has all the appeal of a professional athletic sport, with stars and teams and personalities and rivalries. There are great tournaments all the time – just this last weekend was HomeStory Cup 4, which had unique hook of having the competitors commentate on the matches. So much fun.
I got an iPod Touch late in 2010, and this was the first iOS game to really enthrall me. It’s a tricky little puzzle game, where you lay tracks on a grid to guide different coloured trains to their destinations. The audio and visuals are sparse, but pleasing and functional. There’s a good difficultly curve and lots of levels. Solving puzzles requires the same sort of prototyping and iteration that makes me so found of SpaceChem.[LINK] It’s quick and easy to try out a solution, and then easy to tweak it when it doesn’t work. You can buy find Trainyard in the App Store here (with a demo here).
3) Metro 2033
Yes, I’m giving this spot to a game I’m only halfway done with. Putting on the gas mask and stepping out into the ruins of Moscow left such a strong impression on me. I love the feeling of the world that’s been created. The cold loneliness of the surface. The dark, dank, claustrophobic tunnels. Pockets of humanity scraping out an existence in the crowded, noisy, dirty stations. While I still haven’t found the monsters to be very interesting to fight, and I still suck at first-person stealth, I’ve got some guns that feel good and can actually shoot straight, unlike the rickety ones from early in the game. You can read my initial impression of the game here, and there will be a full write-up at some point in the future once I actually finish it.
What a wild, fun ride. Crazy and exhilarating from beginning to end. The combat system is intricate, crisp and precise, discouraging button mashing by presenting a huge variety of flashy combos that can be accessed by a skilled player. It’s hard, but feels very fair. And when I just want to relax and enjoy the spectacle, there’s the Easy mode, which does the combos automatically. Plus, while I never had a Sega system before the Dreamcast, I can enjoy the weird nostalgic reverence that the game has for Sega’s history.
1) Mass Effect 2
This was an easy choice. There is so much I love about this game. It sucked me in and involved me in its world like no other game of 2010. As much as it occasionally depresses me how ubiquitous fantasies of power and saving the world are in games, being a badass (in space!) can be incredibly satisfying. I love how I have a feeling of ownership of my Commander Shepherd. After two games with her, she feels like a unique, compelling character that I’ve created (even if she’s not actually very different from any other paragon-path Shepherd.) And her supporting cast is fantastic. The standouts are Garrus (much improved from the first game – I love his recruitment mission, in particular) and, of course, Mordin (he sings!). I love how this sequel remembers and draws on my experience of the original game. There are just so many memorable scenes and story moments, from beginning to end.
And then there’s the gameplay. I’m happy giving up the loot system of the first game (especially given how onerous it was to wade through the inventory) in return for a few well-defined equipment choices and a much tighter combat system. The action feels satisfying in a way that few games manage.
There’s still room for improvement – ammo scarcity ruins a lot of the fun on higher difficulty levels, and I wish there were more meaningful choices to be made regarding character development. The Bioware 2-way morality system feels antiquated and constraining – the old complaint, that it reduces down to just making a single good/evil choice at the start of the game and then sticking with it, still holds true. And I wish you couldn’t save everybody. The game is always just barely pulling back from forcing hard choices on to the player. If you play well enough, you can keep both Miranda and Jack loyal. You can keep both Tali and Legion loyal. You can save every single party member, and Shepherd, on the suicide mission. I really feel like the game should force some sacrifice, some trade-offs and hard choices. Bioware touted the game as being a “dark middle chapter”, and so it seems incongruous that the game allows Shepherd and company to escape unscathed if the player makes the right choices. And the fact that some of Bioware’s talk around Mass Effect 3 has involved discussion of it having “an optimal ending” (not to mention the multiplayer) has me worried about the forthcoming sequel.
But this is the place to celebrate games of the past, not fret about those of the future. Mass Effect 2 is a phenomenal game, however you approach it. An RPG without the fluff. A well-paced, action-packed shooter with a great story. A world jam-packed with memorable moments and characters to interact with. No other game of 2010 even came close to matching it.